There seems an increasing number of accessories that athletes may add to their already bulging gym bags. Gone are the days of the one shoe quiver as athletes rotate between lifting shoes, running shoes and hybrids depending on the components of a workout. Belts, wraps and sleeves each promise marginal gains or some form of injury prevention. However it may be argued that the use of these items detracts from the pursuit of general physical preparedness (GPP) and functional movement.
The functional training community lies at the intersection of a number of pure sports including the likes of running, powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting and gymnastics. Each of these possess their own specialist equipment that athletes may adorn to maximize their performance.
As functional training has grown in competitiveness, athletes have begun to adopt such items from these pedigree sports in order to move faster, lift heavier loads and complete more complex routines. Though this has seen athletes accomplish increasingly impressive feats across all disciplines that comprise the functional training bracket, the use of such items to compensate for shortcomings of the body lies contrary to the idea of functional movement and real world transferable skill that is central to the sport.
Have the fundamentals of training been forgotten?
Early publications by the likes of CrossFit.com at the very origins of the functional training movement regularly featured barefoot athletes completing now infamous workouts. Yet fast-forward 15 years and athletes completing those same workouts are now draped in a range of accessories. It would seem fundamental ideas of unadulterated movement and functionality upon which the sport was founded have been somewhat forgotten as athletes have sought to shave seconds off benchmark workouts or lift greater loads.
As with all sports that begin to gain a mass interest and see prize purses grow there will be somewhat of a technological revolution as individuals and sponsors seek to gain a competitive advantage over their counterparts. David Epstein, author of the Sports Gene, notes how the apparent “inexorable progression” witnessed in many sports is in in fact the product of technological advancements rather than some recent up turn in human physical capacity. Epstein highlights how track technology has accounted for much of the time reduction in sprinting or how the decline in the 100m swimming freestyle record is visibly punctuated by technological changes such as the introduction of guttered pools and hydrodynamic suits.
Yet these sports are about ultimate specialization. The athletes that compete in them at the highest levels are ‘freaks’ who possess the ideal body types for these events. By contrast, performance training athletes seek to be the ultimate generalists, unconfined to one particular modality but rather capable of all physical challenges. Though the technological doodads employed by specialist sports have been proven to aid in the pursuit of their extremely concentrated goals, the use of these by the functional training community may actually inhibit the attainment of universal athleticism by compensating for underdeveloped skills or creating artificial environments that are unrealistic.
Eyes of global training community turn to Carson
It would seem there is a growing disjunction between the central dogmas of the functional training movement which champion pure athleticism and uncompromised ability and the expectations of athletes at the highest echelons of the sport. Annually the eyes of the global community turn to Carson, California to watch the fittest men and women in the world do battle in a gladiator-esque competition that sees individuals and teams fight it out over a series of novel events in an atmosphere not too distant from a roman coliseum. Spectators expect spectacle. They are hungry for more ludicrous events and heavier loads.
Moreover as interest in the sport has grown and athletes have become bigger, faster and stronger the need to find more points of differentiation has driven the creation of increasingly demanding workouts. In this scenario, where glory and prize money await the victor of numerous physically draining challenges, one can appreciate how all competitors would seek any marginal gain provided by any permitted accessory.
Yet competition is an anomaly in the annual calendar of most people if it features at all. In reality most of us are simply pursuing healthier lives or enjoy the community spirit as much as any other sport. If the average training participant is not pushing the limits of human capability do they really require these same accessories? The trickle down effect of on-trend accessories such as sleeves and belts from games athletes to semi-pros to the training laity has been a gradual process yet now its hard to look around a gym without seeing at least a few members resembling iron man in their multiple adornments.
When was the last time you strapped on a belt to carry groceries?
Though many cry the merits of various items through a range of pseudoscientific arguments in reality many of these attachments serve only to compensate for the inabilities of the athletes themselves, such as belts for underdeveloped core engagement. The fashions set by the elite athletes as they pursue the pinnacle of the sport and the obsession in all of us with bettering times and PRs have given rise to a culture of accessorization opposed to adaptation.
There do exist credible, peer-reviewed publications such as those on weightlifting belts by the likes of Miyamoto et al. (1999) and Kingma et al. (2006) that demonstrate the potential benefits of using specialist accessories during training. These I do not deny. Rather my argument is that for the average training athlete, training for the everyday, these items detract from the functionality of this style of training. To put it in context, when was the last time you strapped on a belt to carry the groceries in?
When questioned as to whether competition athletes should be allowed to use a range of accessories, training messiah Greg Glassman simply replied, “I wouldn’t do lifting platforms or shoes or belts or wraps or traps or any of that back at ground level again” (Archive footage – published 2011). In a sport that demands you leave your ego at the door and where quality of movement is essential it seems strange that so many of us wrap ourselves up in superhero-like outfitting to get one more rep on the board or a few more pounds of weight lifted for our Instagram account.
* Epstein, D (2013). The Sports Gene. USA: Penguin Books.
* Kingma et al. (2006). Effect of a stiff lifting belt on spine compression during lifting. Spine. 31 (22), 833-9.
* Miyamoto et al. (1999). Effects of abdominal belts on intra-abdominal pressure, intra-muscular pressure in the erector spinae muscles and myoelectrical activities of trunk muscles. Clin Biomech. 14 (2), 79-87.
* CrossFit® (2012). CrossFit – “Lifting Shoes” with Greg Glassman. (Accessed: July 2016)